Under Cocteau’s inventive sleight-of-hand, this early postwar work may be the most magical and poetic adaptation of the beloved fairy tale ever filmed.
Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day
Plot: A beautiful young woman takes her father’s place as the prisoner of a mysterious beast, who wishes to marry her.
Awards: Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Love
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Jean Cocteau, who didn’t make many films in his career, was probably best known for Orpheus (1950) and his adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, made four years earlier.
Under his inventive sleight-of-hand, the beloved fairy tale was transformed into a cinematic delight that despite being made just after WWII, still feels as creatively fresh today as it surely had been 75 years ago.
Part of its charm is, of course, the focus on camera and editing effects to create magic on screen, as well as practical tricks that rely on the illusory, some of which would further inform Cocteau’s even more stunning application in Orpheus.
Although generally suitable for children, Cocteau’s version may be a bit frightening for some, especially when the film cuts to close-ups of the Beast’s hideous face, but that’s also precisely why it has a primal power that sets it apart from other screen adaptations, particularly the more saccharine and mawkish Disney versions.
“Belle, you mustn’t look into my eyes.”
The pace of this French version is of course slower but still accessible. Josette Day (who looked like Catherine Deneuve here) plays Belle with elegance and empathy, but it is Jean Marais’ extraordinary performance as Beast (his expressive face is a marvel in itself) that is the true highlight.
The film works most poetically when it centres on Belle and the Beast either when they are together, or when they are alone, pining for the other.
The lustrous production design of the Beast’s compound emanates a calm if otherworldly feeling; in contrast, scenes of Belle’s hometown are grounded in realism—and so is the chitter-chatter of her annoying sisters and the young men around them.
Perhaps it is not just about ‘beauty’ and the ‘beast’, but also of seeking the tranquillity of true love and the desire to escape the tiresome responsibilities of the real world.